The following essay appeared
Writ in Water
Ben Jonson wrote a poem about
one of his sons who died in infancy, and in
it he calls the boy his "best piece of
poetry," or words to that effect. It's
a lovely thought, to be sure, though I suppose
anyone writing about the premature death of
a young person must guard against the overstatement
and sentimentality that seem to come easily
at such times.
As I know them, the facts are
that Julia Booms, a former student of mine
who graduated from high school in 1987, was
stricken with meningitis and encephalitis
while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
She went into a coma and eventually died on
April 17, 1993. For several years and up until
that spring her mom, Joan, had been the head
of Overlake School. The last day I saw Julia
was the day she graduated from Lakeside School
over seven years ago. Rumors that she'd been
tremendously successful student in college
hadn't surprised me -- she'd been in my courses
in tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades, and,
though she was generally pretty quiet in class,
she'd written brilliant essays, papers full
of energy and insight.
Of course she wasn't always
quiet in class. I remember one fall day in
particular when she brought up a point about
III, iii of Hamlet. This is the scene when
Hamlet, full of neurotic energy from the play-within-a-play
in the scene before, and on his way to confront
his mother in her 'closet,' or dressing room,
spots his uncle Claudius on his knees and
wonders whether to kill him while he's helpless.
I'd learned in graduate school that the crowning
irony of the scene was to be found in the
My words fly up, my thoughts
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Though they are spoken before
Hamlet enters, it is clear that his excuse
for not murdering Claudius does not apply
at all. He'd postponed killing the king principally
out of fear that his uncle had fully confessed
his crimes and so would somehow be forgiven
by the Almighty. It was Julia who raised her
hand and said, "This scene suggests that
Hamlet is a Christian, but something about
it leaves me suspicious. Sure, he acts like
a Christian, and he's troubled by all kinds
of scruples in the play that make us think
he's got a strong conscience. Look at his
reasoning, though. The only reason he doesn't
kill his uncle is that he wants to be sure
he'll go to hell. That doesn't sound very
Christian to me." Of course this isn't
the only time that Hamlet's Christianity comes
up in the play. One of the most famous examples
is earlier, in his first soliloquy, when Hamlet
appears to be contemplating suicide and wishes
that "the Everlasting had not fixed /
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter." Still,
for me and others in the class, Julia's comments
on Hamlet's self-serving rhetoric helped us
begin to examine the ways he seemed to be
like any of us, endlessly grasping at straws
to keep from doing what he was afraid of or
wished to avoid.
I knew I'd saved copies of a
few of Julia's papers. One of my old Romantic
professors (the subject, not the teacher,
to be sure) in graduate school had made fun
of Wordsworth's "squirrel-like impulse,"
his tendency to note his feelings and thoughts
as though he were saving them up, like nuts,
for the winter, and if ever a person has been
susceptible to this, it's me. I had saved
many letters from both my parents long before
they died, and at school I have whole filing
cabinet full of student papers for keeping.
I knew I'd saved an essay Julia wrote sophomore
year about a sunfish she'd seen a fisherman
drag from the water and kill. There was also
a lovely essay from a test, an answer having
to do with the imagery in Macbeth; my fear
was that I'd thrown them out when I was doing
the inevitable weeding and thinning that must
occur when the filing cabinets become full.
I was sure I'd done just that the fall before
I looked and looked. Nothing.
Then I found a batch of papers. It was the
most unlikely thing of all, a worksheet on
iambic pentameter I've sometimes given out
to tenth graders studying Macbeth. Another
teacher had given me the idea for it. Students
were to write ten or twelve lines using iambic
pentameter. There, in labored handwriting
that could only have been the result of a
great deal of effort and frustration, covered
with accents and curved symbols to indicate
stressed and unstressed syllables, were the
Upon the baby now we do await,
And to watch you is as to go back in time,
So like my father you do act. Joyful,
Worried, and forever wondering at the birth.
All first-time fathers, are they quite the
"My dear, I hope you got enough to eat,
So that our darling baby will be strong."
Oh, how to be a parent? Strong and firm,
Yet warm and loving. Hope you do as well
As mine have done.
It was flattering to have been
chosen as the subject of all this labor. My
oldest son Tom had been born around that time,
and that year my sophomores had been subjected
to various follies and inanities associated
with the birth of children, such as a "Sophomore
Name-the-Baby Contest, " and the like.
At the time it was comforting that I hadn't
done any permanent damage to my students out
of excitement over the new arrival.
These lines were not typical
of Julia, since as far as I know she was not
an overly effusive person. I won't say she
was too smart for that sort of thing, though
it has entered my mind; rather, Julia just
seemed to love certainty, and predictability
-- the sheer joy of having a lab turn out
perfectly, or a physics problem coming out
right. And one thing certain in her mind was
that she had wonderful parents, a fact abundantly
clear even to those who had only spoken to
them for two minutes at
Parent's Night, as I had.
Best of all, Julia had scribbled
at the bottom of the page, then erased (it's
just barely visible on the xerox), the words,
"I HATE POETRY." As for me? I really
hate the fact that she is gone.